Simply put, the No Child Left Behind Act, which has been implemented for the past 11 years,i s the single-biggest advance in education policy, both at the federal level and among states and local governments, since the Defense Education Act of 1958. For the first time in the history of American public education, set clear goals for improving student achievement in reading and mathematics; it finally focused attention on using data in measuring teacher quality; it made it clear to suburban districts that they could no longer continue to commit educational malpractice against poor and minority children; and it focused American public education on achieving measurable results instead of damning kids to low expectations. The results for children have been clear, with the percentage of all fourth-graders reading Below Basic proficiency declined from 39 percent to 33 percent in 2011, leading to 217,432 fewer fourth-graders being functionally illiterate — and likely to drop out — in 2011 than in 2003.

voiceslogoYet efforts by both traditionalists and the otherwise reform-minded Obama administration to weaken No Child’s accountability provisions have resulted in a weakening of the very lever needed to push for the next round of systemic reforms. Even worse, this weakening may even endanger the thoughtful reforms President Barack Obama and others have pushed in this decade. Thoughtless policymaking equals bad results for our children at a time in which high-quality education is more-important than ever. 

In this Voices of the Dropout Nation, Sandy Kress, the mastermind behind No Child, reflects on how No Child spurred a series of reforms that are helping children today, and reminds us that we must continue the movement to reform American public education in spite of traditionalist opposition. Read, consider, and take action. 

I have mixed emotions this week on the eleventh anniversary of the signing of the No Child Left Behind Act. On the very positive side, I continue to marvel at the remarkable academic gains in student achievement that have occurred as a result of the standards-based school reform movement. This movement began in the states in the mid-1990s and reached its high point with No Child extending it across the entire nation in the last decade. At the same time, I am also worried about keeping up the momentum for reform.

For the good news, let’s spend a moment looking at Long Term Trend National Assessment of Educational Progress scale score data to appreciate this utterly felicitous turn in trend. Between 1990 and 1999, math scores for nine-year-old Latino students went down 1 point; for black students, it went up a bare 3 points in that same period. Contrast that with the gains from 1999 to 2008: Latino scores went up 21 points (over a 2 grade level improvement), and black scores went up 13 points (over a grade level). White scores went up, too, but the achievement gap narrowed for both blacks and Latinos. For 13-year-olds in math, black and Latino achievement was flat between 1990 and 1999. But between 1999 and 2008, both groups’ scores rose by one grade level.

Between 1990 and 1999, reading scores for black and Latino nine-year-olds rose only 4 points. But between 1999 and 2008, scores for black students rose 18 points (almost 2 grade levels), and Latino scores rose 14 points (about a grade level and a half). From 1990 to 1999, reading scores for 13-year-old black students slipped 3 points, while Latino performance also slipped. But between 1999 and 2008, scores for black 13-year-old rose 9 points from 1999 to 2008. While Latino performance slipped a bit on the long term trend, scores for Latino eighth-graders on the 2011 NAEP were at al-time highs. These gains, while not sufficient, are stunning – truly a major civil rights achievement.

Another positive anniversary reflection concerns all the work that has been done in the last few years to deepen and extend these gains by making content standards more focused, rigorous and directed to the goal of postsecondary readiness. The remarkable gains in basic achievement must evolve more into remarkable gains in proficiency, especially for our secondary students.

Also, worthy of celebration are several other commendable developments: the dramatic increase in the use of technology and data in school management and instruction, the growth of high quality charter schools, the expansion of promising teacher development models such as Teach for America, the creation of new ideas and tools to increase teacher effectiveness, and the onset of constructive and thoughtful media (such as Dropout Nation) and grassroots activity to drive better schools.

Looking back, I see a good, improving picture. But, looking forward, I feel compelled to close out this essay on a worried note. I fear we’re entering a very stormy period, one in which conflict and a loss of momentum may cause stagnation in student achievement progress.

There’s less interest in education these days. There’s less consensus on the need and ways to improve our schools. Elected officials and policy makers are more interested in other challenges and seem turned off by the battles and friction in the education space. For example, have we ever been six years overdue in re-authorization of No Child, with no imminent sign of action?

We used to see a regular competition to be the “education governor” or the “education mayor.” Without doubt, there are some exceptional leaders today, but we don’t see such competitions any more.

Educrats generally are tired of increased expectations and are ferociously fighting further change. Many want more money from the public, but they want no more pressure to produce for that money. One sees this reaction in recent elections. One sees it in recent moves in Florida and Texas to roll back reforms in standards and accountability. One sees it in the many pathetic plans that are being offered and accepted to gain waivers from No Child’s expectations. And one sees it in the gaming of Race to the Top commitments that will increasingly be the negative story that preoccupies the Obama administration throughout the second term.

There are exceptions, to be sure, but business and private sector education reform activity has lost much urgency and impact. There are volunteer efforts, contributions and advertising campaigns these days, but much of it has the feel of the adopt-a-school approach from years ago. Disconnected do-and-feel-good activity, less concerted and transformational action, separate agendas – the activity from the private sector recently and generally has become fragmented, weaker, non-strategic, and poorly suited to sustaining reform in public education. The net impact of these unfortunate developments is that we now operate in an environment that is very inhospitable to an effective implementation of rigorous standards, strong teacher policies, and solid strategies to garner greater postsecondary readiness.

The bottom line is that accountability has lost its meaning, lost its pinch. And as the concept too often becomes nothing more than “something we’re all for,” the drive to create better options, better sources of teachers, better ways of running schools diminishes. Never before have we needed more to strengthen education for our children. Yet, just as we’ve gotten closer to the top of the mountain, we’ve become divided and fatigued. And we can’t seem to continue the march up.

But one thing keeps me hopeful: our country will ultimately wake up to the deepest reality – unless pressed and held accountable, the system will not educate our young people to the standard required for success. It may take time, but the naysayers will be exposed, mainly and unfortunately through a slowdown in student gains that accompanies the lax policies they support. I predict there will come a time in the next decade when reformers will be called back en masse into action to deal with that reality.

In the meantime, good people must stay engaged, keep pressing policies and practices in accord with the next generation of accountability, and work to the extent of their strength and creativity to push the change. It may not be now, but break through we must, and break through we will.